President Obama announced Thursday night that he had ordered limited airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Iraq if needed, along with a humanitarian effort to help thousands of minority Iraqis who are stranded on a remote mountaintop with little food or water.
A senior administration official said no strikes have yet taken place, but that the military stands ready should they be deemed necessary.
"Today I authorized two operations in Iraq: targeted air strikes to protect our American personnel and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped" on a mountain and "facing almost certain death," he said.
Obama said he ordered the strikes on Sunni extremist convoys should they near the city of Irbil, and is fulfilling a request from the Iraqi government to help Iraqi civilians who are the target of a "brutal," "barbaric" campaign, especially against religious minorities.
An administration official said manned and unmanned planes have been "almost consistently" over Irbil recently.
A senior administration official said Obama has "placed limits" on the strikes, including that they only happen in order to protect American personnel and facilities and to prevent militants from making further advances toward Irbil.
An official said the Islamic State is a "militarily proficient organization" that "requires a level of sophistication in terms of a military response." Officials said the group's fighters launched a "multi-pronged" attack Saturday night that changed the dynamics of the situation.
But officials emphasized that the campaign against Islamic State militants will not be sustained, and that no ground troops will be involved.
"We are not launching a sustained U.S. campaign against ISIL here because our belief is the best way to deal with the threat of ISIL is for the Iraqis to do so,” an administration official said.
Obama said the United States cannot and will not intervene in every crisis, but when there are situations where people are facing the threat of violence on a "horrific scale" and "we have the unique capabilities to avert a massacre, I believe the United States cannot turn a blind eye." He added that U.S. action in Iraq now could "prevent a genocide."
An official at the Department of Defense said the U.S. military had "conducted a humanitarian assistance operation in Northern Iraq to air drop critical meals and water for thousands of Iraqi citizens threatened by ISIL near Sinjar." The administration said it had not announced the drop until that operation was over because of safety concerns.
A U.S. official said planes dropped 8,000 ready-to-eat meals and 5,300 gallons of fresh water on the mountain. The drop lasted fewer than 15 minutes and was done at a low altitude. Officials said additional drops will take place if necessary.
The president said Thursday he ran for office in part to end the war in Iraq, and "will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war" there. He said the United States can and should support moderate forces in Iraq and will pursue a "broader strategy" that will allow Iraqis to confront the crisis.
"There is no decision that I take more seriously than the use of military force," Obama said.
Obama said an Iraqi man this week told the world that no one is coming to help.
"Today, America is coming to help," he said.
Obama said he had consulted with Congress on the potential strikes and humanitarian aid, but again did not say he would seek authorization for military action. A spokesman for Speaker Boehner said White House chief of staff Denis McDonough had called regarding the president's decision. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also briefed.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Obama is "right" to provide humanitarian relief and authorize military strikes but that a much more comprehensive strategy is needed against ISIL.
"“We need to get beyond a policy of half measures. The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS." the senators said in a joint statement, using another acronym for the group.
Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.